The Froome affair proves it: Team Sky is champion of misunderstandings

Team Sky’s Chris Froome celebrates after winning his fourth Tour de France in July. Photograph: Adam Davy/PA

It’s always exciting when something goes right down to the wire. And for many of us, the race to re-edit Chris Froome’s Sports Personality of the Year segment in time for Sunday’s show is easily as gripping as anything the seemingly bent sport of cycling can offer.

Chris is in line for the big award, and though he is about as likely to trouble world heavyweight champion Anthony Joshua as Monaco’s Lewis Hamilton is, Froome is still obliged to appear for a sitdown interview, as well as star in some sort of year overview/training montage. Ideally one that doesn’t show a Brigitte Nielsen-style character lovingly administering his asthma inhaler, in homage to Rocky IV. (Incidentally, it’s totally fine to drink six eggnogs while you’re watching this bit of SPOTY to help you get into the spirit – think of it as a therapeutic use exemption.)

By way of a recap, a joint investigation by the Guardian and Le Monde this week revealed that the four-time Tour de France winner Froome failed a drugs test during his victory in the Vuelta a España in September, after double the permitted level of the asthma medication salbutamol was found in his urine. Despite admitting he had upped his dose during competition, Froome insists he did not exceed the permitted dose, and followed protocol.

Quite why these misfortunes keep dogging Team Sky is anyone’s guess. It was only a few weeks ago that UK Anti-Doping, owing to a lack of accurate medical records, was forced to close its probe into a mysterious Jiffy bag delivered to Team Sky for the use of Bradley Wiggins during the 2011 Critérium du Dauphiné. I can’t remember precisely what Ukad’s precise wording was, but it might as well have been what the police concluded about that Spinal Tap drummer who died in a bizarre gardening accident: “best left unsolved”.

Anyway, now there’s this new business. For some, such as the four-time world time-trial champion Tony Martin, it is a “scandal” that the story emerged only after a newspaper investigation, and evidence of a “double standard” in cycling governing body UCI’s treatment of Team Sky.

Yet the most questionable “double standard” as far as this team goes is – as always – its own. It was the same with Wiggins and the Jiffy bag case. A setup that has spent years trumpeting its marginal gains and obsession with absolutely tiny details was revealed as failing to keep basic medical records. Now, even during the year it’s had – in which its attempts to “find the gains” in what former Sky and British cycling coach Shane Sutton called “grey areas” have been widely condemned – Team Sky has somehow presided over a failed drugs test.

Which is the real Team Sky? I have read all the articles where journalists were invited to the so-called “medal factory”, the state-of-the-art HQ where they’ve painted the floor white, and it’s won them the Vuelta or whatnot. According to these reports, there was genuinely something called the Secret Squirrel Club; a Room X, where elite riders were given entirely legal hi-tech something-or-others by some Q equivalent shortly before departing for a mission; a Readiness Index, and so on and so on. But given the weird cock-ups, which art is this all really a state of?

As far as Froome’s defence goes, the burden of proof lies with him and Team Sky’s lawyers, whose argument will (probably) be that he was dehydrated, which accounted for the urine concentration, though conceivably the concerted timings of the maximum dose within the 24-hour period might be cited. The battery of lawyers will (probably) be relatively successful with this, losing just the Vuelta and possibly picking up just a no-fault ban.

Still, it is certainly worth wondering why no asthmatics in endurance sports have thus far successfully challenged the World Anti-Doping Agency’s salbutamol threshold, if it’s easy to go over.

For his part, Chris is very concerned about these other asthmatics, and he kicked off a round of damage limitation appearances by tweeting: “It’s sad seeing the misconceptions that are out there about athletes & salbutamol use. My hope is that this doesn’t prevent asthmatic athletes from using their inhalers in emergency situations for fear of being judged. It is not something to be ashamed of.”

Ashamed? Why would they be ashamed of a condition many top cyclists seem to have? Still, an important public service announcement there. Asthmatics: please don’t place yourself in a life-threatening situation because of mean things people are saying about Team Sky.

Less measured was Catherine Wiggins, Sir Bradley’s wife, whose relationship with Froome’s wife, Michelle, has had periodic episodes of froideur that occasionally warm up to an explosion. One such outburst occurred on Thursday (since retracted, and apologised for), and ran: “I am going to be sick … If I was given to conspiracy theory I’d allege they’d thrown my boy under the bus on purpose to cover for this slithering reptile.”

Crikey. I do enjoy these episodes of the Real Housewives of Cycling. I say housewives just facetiously, of course – in fact, it was Michelle Froome who masterminded the 9kg weight loss that was so instrumental in transforming Froome into someone capable of winning at the highest level. She is a layperson who describes herself as having “a bit of an interest in sports nutrition”. Again, quite why Team Sky’s state-of-the-art professionals couldn’t do this themselves is a mystery we may never solve.

Finally, however this latest misunderstanding wrapped in an enigma shakes down, it does once again force us to marvel at the influence Team Sky came to wield in other areas of public life.
Companies were always being instructed to learn from their ways; the lucrative motivational circuit crawled with their disciples. Sir Dave Brailsford was invited, through the cabinet secretary, to consult on the NHS, among other things. I can’t imagine the eyerolls when they discovered they had been lectured on their performance targets by a guy whose setup failed to keep basic medical records. This was quite understandable, apparently, according to one colleague of Team Sky’s former doctor, because “you get bombarded with stuff in elite sport”. As you do in A&E, buddy. I wonder how they’d get on if they didn’t bother writing stuff down.

The closest the setup has come to an admission of error is Brailsford’s passive “mistakes were made”. Maybe Dave will give us a pronoun – any pronoun – this time round. I always like to suspend my disbelief at this time of year, and look forward to a grey-area Christmas. If not a white one.

Marina Hyde is a Guardian columnist. She currently writes three columns a week for the paper: one general comment, one on sport and one on celebrity.

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